Keating: ‘Learning to Learn’ Is not a Cliché

August 30, 2013

by Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D.

Recent talks by Barack Obama highlight his personal mission to make higher education more affordable. Affluence at home and around the world increases the demand for education. This increase partially explains the doubling of average tuition and fees at four-year U.S. universities during the past 20 years.

Rising educational costs threaten prosperity, according to David Weisel of the Wall Street Journal. The solution to rising costs, however, must be addressed in terms of two fundamental realities that characterize the educational sector at all levels — namely, difficulties associated with increasing productivity and the labor intensity of education.

Faculty and other professional staff absorb generally about 80 percent of all educational costs. With no guarantee of success, education from elementary through university is an extremely costly proposition in terms of time and labor input.

This is particularly the case with respect to vocational education. Electricians, beauticians, mechanics, expert technicians, accountants, nurses, etc., generally have options that exceed the entry-level salaries offered in education. Educational administrators are mistaken if they operate on the assumption that highly specialized faculty members will automatically present themselves when institutions decide to build or market career programs to meet current client demands.

One obvious solution in trimming educational costs, as least at the secondary level and beyond, is for institutions to limit programs and specialize.

Another solution, borrowed from the past, is to capitalize on the flexibility of individuals who have previously demonstrated an ability to learn, who enjoy learning and who are willing to engage, with others, in learning new material.

Educational institutions cannot ignore market-wage options open to faculty. However, until recently, instructors have accepted temporarily slightly less compensation than they otherwise could earn in order to pursue a career consistent with learning. This willingness supplements the financial investments of parents, benefactors, state and nonprofit sponsors of education.

Rather than paying premiums to attract instructors with specific credentials, administrators regularly assigned faculty to teach new algorithms or incorporate computer-assisted instruction, often at an instructor’s personal expense in terms of time and effort. In secondary schools, biology teachers were expected to substitute for chemistry teachers as needed. On the university level, professors traditionally prided themselves on having taught across their discipline. The military continues to rotate members from field to classroom by using standardized manuals and precise learning objectives.

It is natural to want and expect that students be trained by the best, most proficient individuals available. Costs are prohibitive, however, and most educational institutions have a comparative advantage in general versus specialized instruction. Moreover, less experienced teachers do not necessarily reduce test performance according to a recent study (Fitzpatrick and Lovenheim) published by the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Seasoned educators will smile at the arguments presented here for introducing “renaissance” people back into education. However, they might seriously consider that this may be their best means of countering the increasing movement toward on-line and proprietary education.

Good students recognize when an instructor is skating on thin ice in delivering class material. However, motivated students generally buckle down, tackle the text and learn. As long as an instructor does not act in an arbitrary manner and remains professional, both students and instructor advance in proficiency.

Admittedly, weaker students are disadvantaged, as are those experienced teachers one grade up who must compensate for deficient skills in their incoming class — at least in the short run. Teaching is truly a team effort, and the resistance of teachers to individual evaluation on student performance is understandable.

Corporations, obviously, prefer that employees arrive at their doors up to speed with highly specialized skills specific to their industry. Educational institutions are not equipped to provide this, and companies should not expect to shift the cost of proprietary training onto educational sponsors. This assumes, of course, that corporations are free to choose between job applicants through whom a firm has a high probability of realizing a return on its investment in training.

Meanwhile, deans and administrators can trim educational costs by appreciating the true value of available faculty and using these human resources most effectively.

Maryann O. Keating, Ph.D., a resident of South Bend and an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, is co-author of “Microeconomics for Public Managers,” Wiley/Blackwell, 2009.



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